My first experience with the Maserati Levante was in Italy, back in March 2016.
I was staying at a hotel near Fiat’s head office in Turin and there were a few pre-production Levantes running about. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember that it made a massive racket as it went barrelling past. In any other country that kind of noise would be frowned upon, but since it was in Italy, this performance SUV received a round of applause every single time.
A few months later the Levante’s South African press release landed in my inbox and I was elated. The elation did not last, however. Near the end, Maserati announced that SA would only receive the turbocharged diesel model. Boo! Hiss!
I’m a big fan of diesel engines, but not in performance cars. When it comes to the business of going fast, nothing beats the sound, response and high-revving nature of a petrol-burning power train. Yes, diesel engines are fruga but, when it comes to certain cars, frugality should be near the bottom on the list of must-have attributes. Heck, I’d even argue that it shouldn’t make the list in the first place.
Not one to judge a car before I’ve driven it, I decided to accept Maserati’s invite to come drive the thing on a short breakfast run to a lovely place called the Black Horse, just outside Magaliesburg.
First impressions were good. In my humble opinion, it looks absolutely superb and there’s nothing else like it in the segment. The Porsche Macan and Jaguar F-Pace are both beautiful cars in their own right, but the Maser offers the perfect blend of elegance and aggression. It leans slightly more to the aggressive side in a darker colour, but maybe that’s why I like it so much. It also has to be said that it draws quite a lot of attention. The Macan and F-Pace are a dime a dozen in the parts of Pretoria where I live, but to date I’ve yet to see one single Levante. Perhaps that’s already enough to justify the R1.6 million price tag?
The interior both annoyed and delighted me. I love the leather seats, large shift paddles and the superb steering wheel sporting the glorious Maserati trident. It’s lovely to look at and it’s an exquisite place to spend time.
The annoyances have to do with badge engineering. As I’ve driven many test vehicles before, I immediately recognised the infotainment parts carried over from the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The graphics on both LCD screens were updated to include Maserati logos, but the rest is pretty much as it is in the Jeep. If you’ve never been in a Grand Cherokee it probably won’t bother you, but I have and so it does. My final gripe is the placement of the reverse camera. It sits off-centre and it doesn’t blend in especially well. It feels like an afterthought.
On the plus side, the Levante comes with absolutely everything as standard. It has electrically adjusted leather seats, every comfort and convenience amenity and a host of active and passive safety systems that you’d normally have to order as optional extras on its main competitors. These things go a long way towards justifying the high price. If you’d have to spec some of its main competitors to the same level of luxury and safety, you’d actually end up spending more, which almost makes the Levante a bargain.
With that out of the way, we can move onto the stuff that Maserati does exceedingly well – the driving experience.
I’ve driven both the GranTurismo and previous-generation Quattroporte and, while they were very special cars, they weren’t as fast as I was expecting. The same is true for the Levante. Don’t get me wrong, it is a brisk thing, but it doesn’t exactly push you back in your seat like a turbocharged Porsche does.
This didn’t bother me as much as I was expecting, because a powerful engine does not a performance car make. Power certainly plays a role, but let’s not forget about sound, handling and braking.
The handling is superb and the brakes do a brilliant job of slowing this leviathan down. The big problem is sound.
As the Levante is powered by a diesel engine, it was never really going to deliver on this front. It sounds lovely at low speed, but that lovely sound dissipates as the speed picks up and you’re left with something that sounds like a vacuum cleaner. It has to be said that all performance SUVs suffer from this same problem. I ran a BMW X6 M50d for six months and it sounded even worse.
I can overlook this problem, because the turbocharged diesel at least packs a decent punch. Enough to see off a Volkswagen Golf GTI… This issue will soon be resolved, however, as Maserati confirmed that a turbocharged petrol model will be arriving in SA near the end of the year. I have heard that engine at full chat and it is a thing of terrible beauty. I think its high-revving nature and improved throttle responses will also improve on what is already a stunning package.
I like the Levante, or at least I like the idea of the Levante. Its natural rivals feel a bit cold and clinical, but this car, with all its faults, feels as if it’s actually more than a white good meant to transport people. Driving it makes you feel good and having one in your driveway will add a spring in you step as you leave the house every morning.
Maserati Quattroporte GTS
The famous Italian brand had another surprise up its sleeve on the day of the Levante breakfast run.
The first Quattroporte (QP) GTS had just arrived in SA and Maserati let us loose on the roads around Magaliesburg to experience it.
I’m not ashamed to admit that the QP is one of my all-time favourites. At its core it’s a humdrum saloon, but made by one of the most charismatic manufacturers in the world. I have such fond memories of the previous generation car. You climb in and ride a wave of Ferrari V8 noise. In terms of feel good factor, it had no equal. At least not in its segment.
It wasn’t as refined as the competition and it was a bit ugly, but it had so much character that you were willing to forgive it anything.
The new Quattroporte also has a few flaws. The unit I was driving had a mere 2000km on the clock and it already had one annoying rattle in the dashboard. As is the case with the Levante, it also had a Jeep Grand Cherokee infotainment system and dials, which just isn’t good enough in a R3.2 million car…
Did I care? Well, slightly, at the beginning of the drive. Joburg was its usual gridlocked self, but at least the interior was as comforting and cosseting as you’d expect. But that incessant rattle just wouldn’t go away…
As soon as the road cleared, however, I got my first taste of that Maserati magic. The car feels heavy and substantial, but its bi-turbo V8 packs a 400Kw punch. Once you unleash it, any small niggles it may have simply drop away. It has that same thug-like character that its predecessor had, it’s now just more luxurious.
It’s not as fast as an M5, E63 AMG or Porsche Panamera Turbo, but it’s nearly there. At one point I was allegedly doing 160km/h and it showed no sign of letting up. I’m told that it can go above 300km/h, but I’m not keen on spending my entire salary on one speeding fine…
Only a few will find their way here and if you’re one of the lucky ones, just know that there’s at least one journalist out there that’s green with envy.